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Service learning makes controversy

October 24, 2010

Photo by Jacob Stone

By Haley Hoopingarner, Guest Contributor

Community service has long been a staple in secondary and higher education; some school clubs and organizations exist for the sole purpose of pursuing volunteerism for the greater good of a community. In most situations there is a defined separation between the classroom and volunteer service. This has proven to be a worthwhile system as it allows students to focus their attention on what they can handle.

In recent years, however, a new concept has grown within schools, requiring a class or individual to donate time in order to do well or even, in some select cases, graduate. One must wonder, then, how truly effective mandatory service learning is in the learning environment. It is possible that its usefulness is limited, resulting in a student being no better off and possibly even worse for wear. The conflicts involved, such as time requirement, personal interest and morality, interfere with the success of the program; therefore, an answer must be found satisfying a solution.

Service learning, as defined by the organization’s website, is a “teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities.” It is an idea that has existed since the late 19th century during numerous educational movements; but, in recent years, it has become a requirement in the classroom. The entire state of Maryland, for example, mandates every single high school student perform service learning in order to graduate. To date, hundreds of students have failed to graduate from high school for the sole reason of failure to comply. Likewise, numerous schools in varying states require service learning as a condition to graduate. In addition, some students must take certain classes in order to satisfy degree requirements.

Under these settings, students are not ordered into taking a particular course, but when considering other options, it is their only choice. Ideal circumstances involve a student spending a fixed amount of time with a partner, simultaneously contributing and learning from the experience, and then reflecting the results into something meaningful. However, perhaps service learning is not all that it is cracked up to be. There are negatives to every situation, no matter how seemingly flawless they are.

Some students have strenuous difficulty managing the dictated time requirements of service learning.The average college offers an array of different organizations, sports and Greek affiliations to students, and many people decide to partake in what they can. Some are even required to involve themselves with certain things to fulfill a degree or scholarship, thus making it impossible for him or her to reduce their dedication to involvement.

Others yet have work, another necessary evil if one has any hope of supporting themselves. While it could be argued that there is always extra time in the day, this extra time is more often than not filled with either sleeping, eating, or studying, the Holy College Triumvirate. It is safe to say that for every person who does lead a busy life, there is someone else who does not. For this group of people, what time restrictions bind them? Seemingly none. If they are willing, why not encourage them to contribute to society?

This is, after all, the core of the program’s purpose as explained by the organization’s website. If that is it, though, who is to say that we, as a student body, are not already contributing? Our ultimate goal is to finish school with an education that helps make us successful and productive citizens.

A conflict of interest is a strong deterrent that can drive a student into performing a job badly. By entering the education system in the first place, one knowingly concedes to the requirements bound for them. This is typically judged traditionally, however; many students do not consider community service a necessary component for success. Upon receiving the news that he or she must contribute time, work, and money, specifically in regards to car petrol, spirits may not be high. As a result, the effort put forth by the student may not be particularly enriching for either party, even possibly proving to be a negative asset. There is always the “get over it” factor, but there are times when “getting over it” is simply not enough. If one feels strongly enough about something, it will fester.

Service learning may also be determined as morally offensive. At its root it is volunteerism. This fact is duly reinforced by the official service learning website; however, when volunteerism becomes mandatory, service learning quickly falls along the divide of forced labor. Constituents are entered into a work force with no worker’s benefits; furthermore, they must sign away all liability rights. The catch-22 of the matter is that even when one feels so negatively toward a situation–i.e., service learning–there are certain documents, or waivers, demanding to be signed that guarantee no legal leverage against the community partner, yet if said documents go unsigned, the service learning and well-being of the grade received in class enter into danger. In simpler terms, one is forced to promise not to seek legal compensation should injury be accrued even if one does not wish to do so. In addition to this, numerous service learning partners require fingerprints, background checks, or other personal information such as social security numbers in order to work for them. Where does one stand should they not wish to share these personal records? All legal aspects aside, there is not even the option of an alternative assignment in most situations, guaranteeing that, should a student not wish to partake in service learning for any number of reasons, they  fail the course they are enrolled in or possibly not even graduate.

One obvious solution, however brash, is to discontinue the program entirely. The purpose of school in itself is to build individuals into successful adults. By entering into the school force in the first place, one is bound to develop. The skills acquired throughout service-learning are arguably one-dimensional – the student is at the whim of whoever his or her boss is.

By allowing a student to dedicate time to other branches or areas, they are able to acquire what is especially useful to them. A second alternative is to give the student the choice. This eliminates many if not all legal repercussions, as well as ensure that all individuals involved are involved by choice and that the work done is carried out positively and well.

The means in which these actions are carried out vary completely by the program and people involved. Just like service learning is not meant for all individuals, no one or two solutions are meant for every participant. Many people have no problems with service learning, and many of these individuals enjoy what they learn. It seems only logical to allow them to continue with their endeavors. These solutions address those who do have problems, whether physical or mental, with the tasks given. In a scenario in which all participants are pleased, service learning will then have the best possible effect. Until then, the program is not performing to its fullest potential.

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